Why Trump Will Never Make the Ballot

Why would The Donald risk looking like a loser?

08.20.15 10:15 AM ET

Making political predictions rarely turns out well, but here’s one: Donald Trump will not be a candidate for president in 2016.

What? Yes, I know, he’s already announced. In my view, though, he won’t take this all the way to the ballot in Iowa, New Hampshire, or any of the Republican caucus or primary elections.  

Why? Because he’s Donald Trump and everything we know about him tells us he won’t do it.

Let’s step back from the Trump frenzy and consider the realities of a possible Trump run. First is the essential question: Will Donald Trump be the next president of the United States? No. Be it in the throes of a dot-com boom or tulip mania, there are always those who argue, “This time it’s different.” But it never is. All that we know about politics has not evaporated because Donald Trump says he’d like to be president.

What Donald Trump has done so far in 2015 is totally in character with the Trump who’s been in the public eye for decades. He’s a loud voice with strong opinions and loves to be in the middle of the action. But actually putting his name on a ballot would be a strange and quixotic move.

In the Trump lexicon, the greatest insult is to call someone a “loser.” Why would 69-year-old Donald Trump voluntarily transition from business success to political loser? In The Apprentice, Trump decides who is hired and who is, famously, “fired.” He loves that role and it defines his public image. But if he actually takes this quest to a ballot, it will be the voters of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada—all those primary states—who will be interviewing Donald Trump and deciding if he should be hired or fired.

If he doesn’t win, he was fired. He didn’t get the job. Why would he put himself in that position? Short of shaving his head and showing up for a debate dressed in Lululemon yoga pants, it’s difficult to imagine anything more out of character.

When Trump argues that his net worth is far greater than the $3 billion calculated by Forbes and others, he is placing billons of dollars of value on the Trump “brand.” He is obsessed with his image and his brand and that obsession has helped him grow businesses and make a ton of money. Now imagine the likelihood he will risk coming in behind Jeb Bush, a guy who, in Trump’s eyes, might as well be wearing a fake Rolex. Really? How about getting fewer votes than Mike Huckabee? Both of which are likely.

Adults rarely change, and no one changes over 65. Look at Hillary Clinton. She’s the same Hillary Clinton, only more so. And so is Donald Trump. He enjoys doing what he enjoys and God love him for it.

But what do we know about running for president? It’s the most unpleasant, demeaning, debilitating process in public life, a process that almost always ends in failure. Donald Trump is going to put himself through a year of this meat grinder?

Please. That’s absurd.

Some might argue that he can rewrite the rules and force the process to change. No. No one has and no one can. The process of electing a president is the same for all candidates. It’s like the NFL. You can come in a high draft pick or a free agent walk-on, but once the selection begins, no favors are granted.  

To date, Donald Trump has benefited from not being taken seriously. The reality is that the majority of negative political stories originate in some form of research conducted by opposition forces: the famous “oppo dumps.” No one has bothered to do serious oppo research on Donald Trump, and for good reason. The Democrats hope he will win—God, do they ever—and no Republican candidates have had the interest or bandwidth to do the work.

But if Trump actually goes on the ballot, that will change. Then we will start to find out basic information that to date has not been part of the discussion.

Voters will learn how often Donald Trump votes, and whether he votes in Republican or Democratic primaries. Does he harbor wealth off shore? What possible legal issues and lawsuits has he been involved in over the course of his career? And that’s just the beginning. Will Trump be able to dismiss questions about his past as relevant to his performance as president? Hard to imagine from a man who questioned the validity of the president’s birth certificate.

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Some Republicans seem to fear Trump’s threat to run as an independent. Don’t. He won’t do it. He’s a very smart businessman who knows the threat gives him more leverage. He has built his entire business career on maximizing leverage. Why in the world should he walk away from a powerful bit of leverage without getting anything in return? That’s not the Trump way. But he’s not self-destructive and would have zero desire to go down in political history as a spoiler.

We’ve seen this before. In April of 2011, he was leading the Republican field with 26 percent, about the same as he is getting now. He didn’t run but the polls proved he had a following and he wanted to play a prominent role in the process. Remember when, in 2011, he was named the moderator at a Newsmax-sponsored debate to be held two days after Christmas? It was sort of a nutty idea—more debates? Christmas?—but he was confident he could force candidates to the stage. It didn’t happen. Mitt Romney politely but firmly turned down the invite and eventually Trump withdrew as moderator. It fizzled.

A few days before the Nevada primary, he endorsed Romney and, as a prominent businessman in a local community, it probably helped, just as dozens of other like endorsements were positive. Some speculated that he had demanded a speaking slot at the convention in exchange for the endorsement. Nope, never happened, and he didn’t speak at the convention. Like many others, he helped raise money and did what he could to help the campaign. He didn’t get what he wanted but he handled it well.

Donald Trump is having a great time. He’s raising the profile of issues he cares about and contributing to a national discussion. I call that a good thing in a world in which far too many are apathetic and can’t be bothered to contribute.

It’s not entirely dissimilar to the role a very different sort of candidate named Bernie Sanders is making in the Democratic race. But Bernie has fought many losing public battles and believes there is honor in defeat. Donald Trump believes losing makes you a loser. And he will do anything to avoid that label.

For most candidates, it might make sense to ask, “How could he not move forward without losing face?” but the whole point is that Trump isn’t a normal candidate. He went through none of the usual steps of considering a candidacy—talking to donors, conferring with party leaders, etc.—he just got in because, well, he wanted to. And so it will be when he leaves. He’ll exit when polls still show he can win and forever he will be able to argue he could have won. And in doing so, he will have won by Trump rules.

I don’t think Donald Trump speaks for the Republican Party any more than Al Sharpton spoke for the Democratic Party when he ran for president in 2004. Nor do I agree with many of his opinions, and his tone—often, well, it offends me.

But this is a man who has done many good things. He contributes a ton to charity, pays a fortune in taxes, helps create thousands of jobs. When many were ready to give up on New York City in the bad old days, he stayed, invested, and was rewarded. All of that is admirable and important.

So my advice to the Republican Party would be not to worry about Donald Trump. This will work out and a year from now, the party will be defined much more by the nominee than these pre-season skirmishes. My bet is that Trump will be trying to help a nominee win and will play a positive role.

Of course I also thought Seattle would run. But we will see.